Do You Believe In Natural Talent?

by Paul Wolfe on May 3, 2011

Some of you reading this aren’t going to agree with me.  What normally happens on blog posts is that people who don’t agree with the post generally hop to another blog without leaving a comment.

Please don’t do that.

Firstly you’re depriving what I think will be an interesting conversation of your perspective and your voice.  Whether you agree with me, or think I’m stark raving mad doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that you’ve got an opinion on this subject – and I you to share that opinion!

Secondly this topic is too important to just walk on by if you don’t agree.  For the record I don’t believe in Natural Talent – and further, I believe that people who DO believe in natural talent are placing a limiting belief upon themselves.

This limiting belief is one of the forces stopping perfectly capable people from living what Steven Pressfield calls ‘the life unlived.’  I’d like to see more of the people I know and care about – AND the people that YOU know and care about – fulfilling themselves by removing the barriers that stop them from leading the life that they could be leading.

Thirdly – did I say this was an important topic yet? – if you look at the evidence I’m about to put before you, not only does it shoot down the natural talent argument, but it also leads us to a blueprint on how to get better at just about anything.

You wanna learn to paint to a good standard?  No problem.

You wanna learn to write?  Ditto.  You wanna learn to play a musical instrument, or ski, or do pottery, or sculpt, or run an online business, or play tennis, or do just about anything?

NO FREAKING PROBLEM.

Seriously.  It’s no problem.  All you need are the following ingredients:

  • (i)  One or more good to great teachers.  (The better you get at the activity you’ve chosen to learn, the better the teacher you’ll need).
  • (ii)         The will to keep practicing and keep working at getting better.  (This can’t be underestimated by the way – sometimes I call it putting in hours at the coalface.  Because it’s sheer, bloody minded, hard work).
  • (iii)       Regular practice time.

And that’s it.  Combine those three things and you’ll start getting better.  Combine those three things in enough quantities and people will start calling you ‘naturally talented.’

That’s because they believe in the myth of natural talent.

The Myth Of Natural Talent

The myth of natural talent is one of the two most poisonous forces in the Universe.  (The other one is Resistance btw).

It’s poisonous because your Ego uses it to stop you from progressing at something you really want to achieve.  The Ego is programmed by thousands of years of evolution to keep us alive – and as a result it hates change.

That’s because with change comes uncertainty.  With uncertainty comes potential danger.  So the Ego tries to steer us away from change.  And uncertainty. And potential danger.  And when we want to learn to play a musical instrument, or learn to speak a foreign language, or learn to draw, or paint, the Ego does its work like this:

It finds an example of someone in your field who is really good.  And it whispers in your ear: “you can never be as good as them.  They’re naturally talented.”

Most of us are lost the minute we listen to that voice.  Or the minute we let that limiting belief take root in our psyche.  Back in the day this happened to me – I ‘invested’ over a thousand hours of practice time trying to get better at the bass guitar.  But I wasn’t seeing any progress.

So I became disinterested and stopped practicing.  I believed – wrongly – that I had reached the limit of my natural talent.  I was too young and inexperienced to question the teaching method that I was following at that time.

This was back in 1992/1993 – which was approximately the same period that a guy called Anders Ericsson was conducting a ground breaking study that shattered the myth of Natural Talent forever.

Anders Ericsson/Deliberate Practice/The 10,000-Hour Rule

Not many people have heard of Anders Ericsson – I bet you’ve all heard of the 10,000 Hour Meme though.

Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers popularized the 10,000 Hour rule – and essentially it states that to get to be world class at a discipline you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice.  Or 10 years of work.

Anders Ericsson was the guy who formulated the 10,000 Hour rule, and it was part of a conclusion of a detailed study of violinists at the West Berlin Academy Of Music.

Ericsson was fascinated with the question of ‘talent.’  Was talent natural, or was it the result of something else?  And he set out to study it.

Here’s what he did.   Along with his team of researchers they went to the West Berlin Academy of Music and conducted a detailed study of violinists.  (The West Berlin Academy was renowned for producing international soloist level violinists).

Without the students knowing, Ericsson asked to split the class of violinists into two groups – those that would make international soloist level, and those that were ‘merely good enough’ to be 1st Violin, 2nd Violin etc in internationally renowned symphony orchestras.
Then they conducted detailed interviews with the students, the student’s teachers, and the student’s parents.  These interviews resulted in the collection of data about each of the students, which Ericsson and his team then analyzed.

All of the violinists from both groups had extremely similar stories.  They’d all started playing at around the same age.  They’d all won similar competitions as they were getting older.  They were all currently putting in similar practice time at the coalface.
But there was one statistic that clearly separated Group 1 (those destined to be international soloists) from Group 2 (those good enough ‘only’ to be ensemble players).

And that was lifetime practice hours.

Group 1 on average had racked up 7,410 lifetime practice hours.

Group 2 had only managed 5,301 lifetime practice hours.

That’s a differential of 2109 practice hours.  To put that into some context for you – if you practiced 3 hours a day, for 6 days a week, every week of the year, it would take you over two years to make up those 2109 hours.

What’s ironic about Ericsson’s 10,000 Hour rule being included in Gladwell’s book Outliers is that there were NO outliers in Ericsson’s study.  There was no one in Group 1 who had practiced substantially less than his contemporaries, but who made up for less practice with ‘natural’ talent.

No one.

Let me put it a different way for you – if you played chess  against a friend who had played 2000 hours more than you, who would you expect to be more ‘naturally’ talented?

Now take Chess out of that paragraph and substitute any other activity – speaking a language, ski-ing, computer programming, writing, sculpting, painting, anything.  Do you think that someone with 2000 hours of practice more than you would appear more naturally talented than you?

Me too.

Now there’s lots more lessons to take from Ericsson’s groundbreaking studies.  That’s for another day.  Although he’s the big name in the expertise acquisition field – and rightly so – there are others.

One of them is Lazlo Polgar – who also had unanswered questions about the talent conundrum.  Those questions led to the training of his daughter:

Susan Polgar – The World’s First Female Chess Grandmaster

If you Google Susan Polgar you’ll quickly find out that she was the first female grandmaster at Chess.  You might also find out that she has two younger sisters who are also highly skilled at chess.

Lazlo Polgar believed that genius was made not born. And that children could reach exceptional levels provided they commenced learning at an early age

And he tested that belief by training his own children.

Prior to the birth of his children Lazlo Polgar knew little about chess.  With the help of his wife he home schooled his children – and chess was their specialist subject.

Here are some of the results of the training that Susan Polgar received:

  • Aged 4, she won the Budapest Girl’s Under 11 Tournament (with a score of 10-0 in the final!).
  • Aged 12, she won the World Under 16 Tournament (girls)]
  • Aged 15, Susan Polgar was the top ranked female chess player in the world
  • Aged 21, she became the first woman to qualify as a grandmaster

Susan’s younger sisters also received similar training – with similar results.

Remember earlier I said that three things were needed to get better at a chosen discipline: great teaching, practice hours, and the will to put those hours in?  With Susan Polgar all of those things combined – and the first female chess grandmaster was the result.
But Susan Polgar is not the only person who’s benefited from these three factors coming together.

The Child Prodigies – Mozart and Tiger Woods

Whenever Natural Talent is discussed, almost inevitably the names of Mozart and Tiger Woods appear.

And people will hold them up and say: these guys are natural talents.  Mozart was writing symphonies and concertos whilst still a child.  Tiger Woods won a major Masters tournament aged 18.  Yada yada yada.

All those facts are true.

But if you dig into their stories you’ll find them very similar to the Susan Polgar story.  What few people know is that Mozart’s father was not only a renowned composed in his own right, but was the pre-eminent musical pedagogue in Western Europe.  And he started teaching Mozart aged 20 months or so.

And Tiger Woods’s father Earl started training Tiger very early too – he designed a putter for Tiger to start playing with when he was only 8 months old.  The putter was for use when Tiger was in his high chair.

When you examine their stories, these child prodigies, these examples of ‘natural talent’, turn out to be further examples of talents that weren’t handed down from the Gods, but instead were honed by a combination of great teaching and thousands of hours of sheer, hard bloody work.

Great teaching is a crucial part of the equation too – and often overlooked.  The story of table tennis champion Mathew Syed illustrates how important great teaching is:

Silverdale Close vs. The Rest of Great Britain

Matthew Syed played table tennis.  For many years he was Number 1 in the UK.  He’s now a journalist, and writes for The Times.

What’s really interesting for the talent debate is that Mathew has also read the work of Ericsson and the people who’ve followed him, and written about it with particular reference to table tennis (or ‘ping pong’) in a book called Bounce.

In Bounce, Matthew looks back at how he became English table tennis champion – and attributes it to a number of factors.  Chief among them are these:

  • (i)  Access to a 24 Hour practice facility – the Omega Club (probably the only one in England at the time
  • (ii)         His high school sports teachers – Peter Charters – was the nation’s top table tennis coach
  • (iii)       His elder brother was also a fanatical player – so he always had someone to practice with.

There’s our talent troika – practice, teaching and will.  What’s particularly striking – and a fact that illustrates that teaching is as necessary to the acquisition of ‘talent’ or ability as anything else – is that at one time in the 1980s, Silverdale Road and the surrounding vicinity in Reading,  produced more outstanding table tennis players than the rest of the UK combined.

If You Still Believe In Natural Talent…

Please watch this short video.  And tell me in the comments if you think this 7-year-old girl is exhibiting any natural talent at tennis:

That 7-year-old girl doesn’t look naturally talented to me – yet on April 20th, 2009 she was ranked Number 1 in the world by the WTA.  And yes, that was above both of the Williams sisters.

The reason she was able to go on and reach that position was because of training, practice and persistence.  Scratch any ‘champion’ at any discipline – music, painting, writing, sport, anything – and you’ll find these three attributes.

Summary

Now I’ve talked a lot about natural talent in the context of champions.  And these people ARE extraordinary.  But what’s extraordinary about them isn’t that they possess any more natural talent than you and me – what they possess that differentiates them from you and me is thousands of hours of disciplined practice.

Now being a ‘champion’ isn’t what’s important – what’s important is that you recognize that natural talent doesn’t exist.  And that if you want to get better at ANYTHING, then you can.

You need:

  • (i)  To practice regularly
  • (ii)         A great teacher
  • (iii)       Persistence.

What Do YOU Think?

I already know this is a controversial subject. If you don’t agree with me, please don’t surf somewhere else.  Please take a moment to leave a comment telling me WHY you don’t agree with me.  And think about your comment – don’t just say: you’re wrong, you suck.  Tell me why I’m wrong.

I guarantee you that we will all be enriched by this debate.

The only rules are: be polite.  And courteous.  I want to learn.  I want you to learn.  I don’t have the time or energy for flame wars or pointless bickering.  Robust but polite debate is what I’m after….bring it!

{ 66 comments }